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Exploring the nature of pure ambition

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

What do Sean “Puffy” Combs, Bill Clinton, Britney Spears, Tiger Woods and Condoleezza Rice all have in common? Ambition.

Nobody knows whether genetic, chemical or other differences drive the ambitious behavior of highly successful people. Persistence — staying focused until a job is done well — seems to be related, and that’s an essential leadership characteristic.

Energy level also seems related.

“Energy level may be genetic,” says psychologist Dean Simonton. “But, a lot of times, it’s just finding the right thing to be ambitious about.”

You’ll hear leaders telling others to become passionate about their work, but passion is not a faucet you can turn on and off.

Strivers are an ambitious bunch, and they often strive toward something that will make life better for everybody. Consider whether you want to hitch your wagon to that star.

Caution: Even if you’re happily, productively and energetically engaged, watch out for the health warnings that seem to accompany a yearning for supremacy, including heart problems and ulcers.

Alpha wolves often show high cortisol in their blood, the same stress hormone found in humans. Alpha chimps endure ulcers and the occasional heart attack.

Another dark side to ambition lurks around status, power and ego.

“There’s a point at which you find an interesting kind of nerve circuitry between optimism and hubris,” says leadership guru Warren Bennis. “It becomes an arrogance or conceit, an inability to live without power.”

Bottom line: Shoot for the stars. Just keep your ego detector on full alert.

—Adapted from “Ambition: Why Some People Are Most Likely to Succeed,” Jeffrey Kluger, Time.

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